Patrick targets the achievement gap

In a passionate speech before a packed house at UMass Boston on Wednesday, Gov. Deval Patrick announced that we must close the achievement gap in our schools if opportunity is to still have any meaning in today’s America. He said poverty is the reason the state’s achievement gap remains so persistent, and unveiled several initiatives to address the problem.

His call to action was both personal—the story of Patrick’s own journey out of the South Side of Chicago is certainly well known by now—and prophetic, imploring the 400-plus educators and policy wonks in attendance to consider this work our “patriotic and moral” obligation.

Back in February, Gov. Patrick instructed his education secretary Paul Reville to develop an education strategy for Gateway Cities. It has taken nine months—a full academic year—but on Wednesday we learned that the governor will dedicate the remainder of his second term to addressing the achievement gap in Gateway City schools. This is long overdue.

The 11 Gateway Cities that MassINC first described in a 2006 report are home to 1 million residents—15 percent of the state’s population. But Gateway Cities disproportionately house those who lack a foothold in the Commonwealth’s new knowledge economy. They represent 30 percent of the state’s poor, 45 percent of welfare cases, and 55 percent of incarcerated youth. The high school graduation rate, on average, in Gateway Cities is only 63 percent and just 19 percent of Gateway City residents 25 and older have a four-year degree. After years of education reform and billions in new state school funding, a staggering 71 percent of Gateway City students attend chronically underperforming schools in Gateway City neighborhoods. There is certainly a lot of work to do.

Gov. Patrick laid out several new programs to address these structural inadequacies. A Kindergarten Readiness Literacy Pilot Program in Gateway Cities would help more students become proficient readers by the third grade. Because so much success in school and life rests on third grade reading proficiency, that probably should be the singular priority. But three other programs were presented by the governor. Support services would be coordinated through “student support counselors,” case managers that will better coordinate human and social services provided to students and families. English language learners in Gateway City schools would receive summer instruction to become more competent in English. Finally, Gateway City high school students would receive earlier exposure to careers through internships and career academies.

Funding for all of this would be provided in part by a new public-private partnership called the Commonwealth Education Innovation Fund. Public money would be used to leverage private funds that would support innovation across the state. Boosting philanthropic investment, and the new ideas they bring, in Gateway City school districts could be a real game changer as well.

But will all this be enough? We have been addressing achievement gap issues since 1993 and, as MassINC concluded in its report Incomplete Grade, doing more of the same is not working. The Patrick administration sees Gateway Cities as MassINC does, key contributors to regional economic development, and understands the very important role that education reform plays in economic development.

Putting these programs in place right now will take time. So while that is happening, we should take advantage of several opportunities created by the 2010 Achievement Gap Act. For example, let’s make sure that more charter schools are created in Gateway Cities—they are making a difference right now. Let’s create incentives so that school districts launch more so-called Innovation Schools, a type of in-district charter school that helps to change the status quo. Let’s take a more comprehensive look at how schools anchor neighborhoods and coordinate at both the state and local level plans for school-centered neighborhood revitalization.

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In other words, let’s aggressively implement recent law while developing new ideas for serving students. The only answer to closing the achievement gap is finding what works and making sure we have more of it.

John Schneider is executive vice president of MassINC.